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Methods for Changing Behavior and Thoughts

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 25th 2016

It may help to start this section on methods you can use to change behaviors by offering a definition of behavior. A behavior is something that you do; some action that you take. Conventionally, a behavior is something that you act out physically, such as taking a walk, or smoking a cigarette, or rolling your eyes when your spouse is complaining. However, behaviors can be subtle, non-physical things too. Thinking can be considered a behavior, for instance.

A very few behaviors are directly instinctual and designed into the human condition. An infant's rooting reflex (how it knows to orient its mouth to the breast) is one, and human being's preparedness as infants to learn languages when exposed to them is another. Most other behaviors are learned. Non-instinctual behaviors become established according to the regular principles described in learning theory, that most scientific of all psychological theories.

The principles of learning theory apply equally well to both human beings and animals, because all animals (human beings included) share a common basic design. All animals, from the highest and most complex to the lowest and simplest, have basic needs they need to meet and are designed in such a way so that they know how to meet them. All animals get "hungry" in some fashion and search for food, and all animals know to avoid extremes of temperature, predators or other environmental threats to their continuing existence Another way of saying this is that all animals have in common that their behavior is motivated. Any animal that can be motivated, can be manipulated according to the principles of learning theory, so as to shape the animal's behavior.

There are two types of animal motivation: the motivation to approach something, and the motivation to avoid something. These two opposed orientations are caused by ancient brain systems that most all animals share in common. In learning theory, approach motivations are described as "reinforcing", and avoidance motivations are described as "punishing". Something that an animal desires to approach can be considered to be a reinforcer for that animal, while something the animal desires to avoid can be considered a punishment.

Things don't innately have reinforcing or punishing properties; rather these properties are ones that animals assign to things, each according to its own needs. What is reinforcing to one animal, then, may not be reinforcing to the next. Similarly, what punishes one animal, may not punish another. Animals are born with different temperaments (genetically determined basic personalities and dispositions), and each individual animal's temperament helps determine what they will respond to.

To make things more complicated, there are two kinds of reinforcements, and two kinds of punishments. Unfortunately, the terms used to clarify the type of reinforcement or punishment sometimes confuse people. It's useful to start by thinking of the terms this way: reinforcement increases the likelihood that someone will act the same way in the future. In other words, a person's behavior will increase due to a reinforcer. Punishments, on the other hand, decrease the likelihood that someone will act a particular way in the future. In other words, the behavior decreases. Now the clarifiers: the term "positive," when used to describe a reinforcer or a punishment, simply means that something was presented to the person. You can mentally substitute a "+" sign for the term, and remember that something was added to the situation. In contrast, "negative" means that something was taken away. This time, mentally substitute a "-" sign for this term to help you remember what it means. Combining all of these terms results in the following learning situations: positive reinforcement (presenting something to the person that increases their behavior), positive punishment (presenting something that decreases their behavior), negative reinforcement (taking something away increases behavior), and negative punishment (taking something away decreases behavior). Again, this is a bit confusing to most people, so some real-world examples should help.

  • Positive reinforcement is what most people think of when they hear the word "reward". This type of situation occurs when you provide a desired thing. Your child gets straight "A"s on her report card, and as a reward, you take her out for ice cream.
  • Positive punishment is the classical kind of punishment that occurs when an aversive event follows the behavior. If you irritate a dog by yanking on his ears, and it bites you, you will be less likely to yank on the dog's ears in the future. Similarly, if you drive faster than the speed limit and get a hefty ticket, you will be less likely (in theory) to speed in the future.
  • Negative reinforcement occurs when you take away an aversive thing. A great example is built into our cars: the annoying buzzer or chime stops when you fasten your seat belt.
  • Negative punishment occurs when you take away a desired thing. Your child acts up while watching a favorite TV show, and as punishment, you turn the TV off.

In the jargon of learning theory, the things that animals either want to approach or avoid are known as stimuli. A stimulus is something that stimulates an animal, motivating a reaction.

There are two kinds of stimuli in the world: Those that are instinctually motivating to a given animal, and those which are not instinctually motivating but which can become motivating when they become associated (through a process of classical conditioning) with an instinctually motivating stimulus. A good example of an instinctually motivating stimulus (what is called an "unconditioned" stimulus) for most animals (people included) is food. Animals don't need to learn that food is good; they simply know it when they taste it. An animal may initially ignore a range of other potential stimuli, but come to pay a lot of attention to them after they are paired with food, so that they come to indicate that food is on its way. This is what happens when a dog learns to salivate upon hearing a bell ring (because that bell suggests that mealtime is soon), and when fish in a tank rise to the surface in anticipating of feeding when you lift the lid.


Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

why rip it to shreds? - - Dec 8th 2010

I think you all have too much time on your hands, just take out of the post what is useful, why rip it to shreds? Some things are seriously over analysed, in the grand scheme of things........

change behavior - Ali - Jun 20th 2010

it's not a comment,

I want some one to give me 20 methods to communicate with the patient to change his behavior.

try emotional freedom technique; eft - - Jan 11th 2010

check it out on google or youtube; eft

Positive reinforcement examples in the short term - Dale - Dec 24th 2009

If in one's life, one chooses to support positive behaviour by positive reinforcement, what would be some examples of short term positive reinforcements that one can give one's self  that would not lead to weight gain or spending money and  that would provide an "atta boy" for a momentary victory. Is there something that could be used multiple times a day which would be the equivalent of someone else saying "well done?" even though you are dealing with a private issue.  It is one thing to say that you will take a cruise when you have succeeded  over a period of months, but somethng is needed to reward hour-by-hour or day-by-day successes.

interesting - - Dec 13th 2009

I found the article very, very interesting. Thanks, for posting

not helping - b.j - Nov 19th 2009

This still don't help my problem I got a jerkong preomblem I can't stop I want to stop but I can't wat do I do

you may never notice when you change your mood - bob gusman - Feb 9th 2009

there is a girl that sits next to me every day and she doenst know that every day she has a differrent mood every day and she doesnt even notice it =}

Clarity in terminology - Kay - Jan 31st 2009

Postive and negative simply refer to the removal or adding stimulus to the environment.

 Reinforcement is defined as stimulus that causing behavior to mostly increase in the future.

Punishment- stimulus that causes behavior to most likely decrease in the future.


Positive Punishment - the adding of stimulus to the environment that decrease the probability of a behavior in the future.

i.e. Speeding (behavior) and you get a hefty ticket and it decreases the behavior of speeding in the future. If it did not decrease your need to speed then getting hefty tickets is NOT positive punishment for you! Myabe it is for someone else.  In order to be a true "punisher", the intervention has to decrease the behavior.

Negative punishment - the removal of a stimulus from the environment that decreases the probability of a behavior in the future.

i.e. A child typically gets a dessert after dinner but hasn't been eating all of his dinner for awhile. So, Mom says "No dessert for you!" This may decrease the child's tendency not to eat his dinner. And if it does not, then it's not a punisher for this child.

 Positive Reinforcement - the addition of stimulus to the environment that increases the occurence of a behavior in the future.

i.e. Teacher will give a dollar bill to the all the students that bring in their homework assignments the next day. The completion of homework assignments brought by students increases.

 Negative Reinforcement - the removal of stimulus from the environment that increases the occurence of a behavior in the future.

 i.e. The above example of the seatbelt is a good one to describe negative reinforcment. The stopping of the bell in a car INCREASES the tendency for one to wear their seatbelt in order to stop the ding.

Self Acutalization - Brandi Gill - Nov 22nd 2008

According to  Abraham Maslow, how many years does it take to develop self-actualization?

Editor's Note: there is no time table.  Many people may never reach it.  Those that do will not stay there for very long, very probably.  It is what can emerge when creative people manage to meet all their other needs (always a tenuous thing to maintain).  

just a question - Lauren Heflin - Nov 13th 2008

How long does it take to reach self-actualization?

Worth looking at - Cedric Ingram - Oct 22nd 2008

Reading this article really gave me a better understanding of reinforcement and punishment.  I'm glad I looked at it.

There are still typos - Renee - Jun 26th 2008

Just letting you know there are still typos.  as in "a infant" it should read "an infant". 

Editor's Note:  Fixed. 

Very helpful - Ilene Calderon RASi - Apr 7th 2008

This entire article is very helpful. I teach alcohol diversion courses and have the clients do a behavior modification exercise. This article allows me to explain to them in simple terms what is going on in their brain and how they have control over changing it.

i found it easy to understand - - Apr 5th 2008
what i understand +punishment is to disiplin say a child for doing something that could in danger there life's there for they will think twice before doing it a second time -punishment is having to live with the consequence of what they have done in other words learning the hard way. anyway i got a lot out of this article as i suffer depresstion and have a lot of negative thoughts thanks heaps 

It's all in the words! - Tom - Mar 25th 2008

I am a psychologist, but you are even confusing me with your terminology (15 years out of grad school , so maybe terms have changed). If you replace the word "reward" with "reinforement", it all starts to make sense. The word reward is too ingrained in colloquial language to use to explain negative reinforcement. I know many professionals in the helping professions that cannot define negative reinforcement, let alone "negative reward", which sounds a bit oxymoronic. Hope this helps. 

@Editor - - Sep 13th 2007

@Editor: You say "A negative reward occurs when you take away something that the child wants." and again you're wrong!! You are mixing up negative reward and negative punishment. Look at for a better understanding.

Editor's Note: We are always open to correcting mistakes that appear in our pages, but in this case, we aren't sure that the mistake you've identifed is in our page anymore.  In the most recent version of this difficult page, we don't say what you say we are saying.  Instead, the relevant line reads, "Negative reinforcement occurs when you take away an aversive thing. A great example is built into our cars: the annoying buzzer or chime stops when you fasten your seat belt".  Are you sure you're looking at the most up-to-date page?  

reference - lotus - Aug 22nd 2007

the essence of the article is pretty interesting, since every one in the world has got problems with someone's behaviours(parents with their kids, spouces with each other and teachers with their students)

but i think in the article there was no reference to the origin of this theory which is called Behaviourism, established by pavlov and skinner; for those who want to get the original version of the theory.

doesn't make sense - Isa - Jul 2nd 2007

Something in the article doesn't make any sense.

You say:

Both positive reward and negative punishment are experienced as rewarding.

How is taking child for an icecream and turning of a TV they want to watch both rewarding?

Both positive punishment and negative reward are experienced as punishing.

It's impossible that both sending a child to his room and allowing him out of the room are punishments.


Shouldn't it write that positive reward and negative reward are rewarding and positive punishment and negative punishment punishing?

Editor's Note: There is a problem with the wording in this article, and our editors are working to fix it. However, the issue you raise is not the problem. Taking your child for icecream (assuming she likes icecream) is a positive reward. However, turning off the tv is not a negative punishment - your example is for a positive punishment. A negative punishment occurs when you remove something that is experienced as painful. So turning off the TV is only a negative reward if your child is watching something that she DOESN"T want to watch - at which time, she will feel relief which is why negative punishment is rewarding.

Sending your child to her room (assuming she doesn't like her room) is a positive punishment. However, allowing her out of the room is not a negative reward. That would be a good example of a negative punishment, instead. A negative reward occurs when you take away something that the child wants.

This is a tricky business. We'll try to make the document clearer shortly.

Neg. & Pos. Theorem - Quezzi Segmins - Jun 22nd 2007


I have noticed that the neg., and positive reinforcement and punishment theory is quite challenging. Say for instance, one lives in a democratic household and you make pick an option to reward or punish said child, but your spouse may not approve of the method, and now your decision has to go into a run-off. This is the conflict that happens to appear everytime the method is applied, in which before was a variable the came to be a major factor. Not being of one mind. The spouse culture is another factor, for what the husband may approve of the spouse does not. Is this a case that authoritarian personality appears to be the factor, and the methods to establish that can be quite "brutal". So while the debate is ongoing in which reward and punishment is most appropriate the discipline forsaken to bring about the desired change in behavior. How would you go about settling such impasse when the method opens additional corridors such as beliefs and cultural differences?

so defn's are mixed up? - cyrus - May 12th 2007

I'll have to go back my old psych. textbooks to refresh my memory, but if what you wrote in your reply is correct (and I'm not saying that it isn't) then there's an inconsistency somewhere. I thought that the definitions were correct, but the examples switched around, but it seems that the examples are correct and the definitions are switched?

For example, in the article it says that:

Both positive reward and negative punishment are experienced as rewarding

Both positive punishment and negative reward are experienced as punishing.

But in your reply it says that:

Taking away a child's toy is aversive - it is a punishment - but it is a negative punishment (and not negative reward) because something desirable is being removed.

Having splinters in your fingers is aversive and it is rewarding when those negatives are removed. So removal is a reward, but it is a negative reward because something aversive is being removed.

This would mean that both positive and negative punishment are punishing (where in one we apply something unpleasant and in the other we remove something pleasant).

And a reward is always rewarding (positive reward means giving something pleasant and negative reward means taking away something unpleasant)...

... correct?

Editor's Note:  We've corrected errors in the text (again).  Thank you for your comments!

actually it's the examples which are mixed-up - cyrus - May 10th 2007

The definition given for negative punishment and negative reward are correct, but the examples given at the end, are switched around.

Giving a child their favourite toy is a 'positive reward'... taking it away would be a 'negative reward.'

Getting splinters (from wood-working) is a positive punishment, having the splinters pulled out would be a negative punishment.

It helps to emphasize that in this context "positive" essentially means, applied, given or administered.

"Negative" means to remove, discontinue or take away.

A "reward" is a good... something desirarble.

A "punishment" is a bad... something unpleasant.

We would enjoy being given something desirable (pos. rew.), or having something unpleasant removed from our environment (neg. pun.).

We would not like getting something unpleasant (pos. pun.) or having something desirable taken away (neg. rew.).

hope this helps :)


Editor's Note:  Your definition of "positive" as "applied" is very helpful but we stand by the examples in the text.  Rewards are rewarding and punishments are aversive.  By which is meant, rewards are something that animals will work to achieve, while punishments are something that animals will work to avoid. 

Taking away a child's toy is aversive - it is a punishment - but it is a negative punishment (and not negative reward) becuase something desirable is being removed. 

Having something unpleasant removed from the environment is something animals will work to achieve - it is rewarding.  But it is a negative reward, because something is being removed that is aversive.

Having splinters in your fingers is aversive and it is rewarding when those negatives are removed.  So removal is a reward, but it is a negative reward becuase something aversive is being removed. 

This stuff is tricky, but if you keep clear in your mind the two important concepts - desire vs. aversion and adding vs. removing, it makes sense. 

the way this sounds doesn't make sense - V - Mar 30th 2007

I'm not english major either but the way this sounds doesn't make sense. "Instead, negative punishments are actually rewarding, and negative punishments are actually rewarding." (6th paragraph) so?? shouldn't it be changed and shouldn't someone just proofread it before posting. because the article does in fact has some good info so why not make also make it readable.

Editor's Note: I can't argue with your logic. The wording was wrong and we have corrected it. Thank you for pointing it out.

nice explaination - brian - Dec 9th 2006

i just noticed that as well. nice explanation sans the typo.

Editor's Note: We are Psychologists - not English Majors. We do the best we can (grin!)

Contradiction - sorry I read it wrong but... - - Dec 7th 2006

Sorry - just wrote to you about a contradiction in the text but I read it wrong (I think). There is a mistake where the phrase is repeated - that's all. Are you sure that negative punishment is rewarding??? I'm no expert at all but I understand that a punishment is intended to change bad behaviour, so I would understand negative punishment as being a negative action such as denying food for example in order to punish, as opposed to giving a slap (which is positive action). I found the article interesting but this bit confused me - as stated in the article!

Editor's Note In this case, the term negative means that something that was present is now being removed - not that the experience is negative itself (e.g., uncomfortable). Negative punishment is the offset of punishment. When something that is punishing is removed, there is relief, and so the experience is rewarding. Not really paradoxical, but nevertheless confusing.

Reinforcement & Punishment - Dean - Nov 26th 2006

I think you mixed up negative punishment with negative reward. The definition you gave for negative reward is actually the definition of negative punishment and vice versa

Editor's Note: You were correct, and we have altered the text so as to fix it.

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